… on t and marshal (part one)


Did you know that there was a study done recently that showed that Facebook can contribute to depression?  Yep. Now, I have to add a quick caveat here and tell you that I hate any poll that doesn’t support what I already think anyway (solely because if I quote a random PhD in an argument with my kids, it sounds more credible than me saying ‘because I said so’.)  Anyway, so this German university got together with this other German university and did a poll and the results were that Facebook can stir up “intense feelings of envy and can also negatively impact life satisfaction, especially for passive users.” This is ostensibly because you and I are not smart enough to realize that people mostly post their happy stuff and not their tragic stuff and therefore believe everyones’ lives are way more fun and happy than our own and this bums us out. Seriously. That was a poll. By PhD people.

So the reason I mention the study is that – if you have read Just Ponderin’ at all – you know that you can expect a fairly bizarre and hopefully somewhat entertaining assessment of …well…just about anything. But this story is deeper and has sad bits. Sigh. But the good news is that I am selflessly helping those of you who are prone to the Facebook-induced depression that occurs when you assume everyone else’s lives are way better than yours due to the on-line presentations of their lives.  So if you are a regular ‘Just Ponderin” reader and are under the impression that my entire life is an ongoing silly circus and yours is not, shame on you. Yours is an ongoing silly circus. You’re just not looking at it through the right lens.

Okay, here we go.

You may have seen Marshal Dillon Dingle before, in a previous ‘Just Ponderin” or on a Facebook post. He is a silly, beautifully-bred, goof-ball of a young German Shepherd Dog. And I didn’t want him. At all.  But it will require a journey through another German Shepherd dog in my life to get to why this was so. It’s called context. Grab a tissue. I’ll wait.


I should be clear, I know my animals won’t outlive me – at least not at my age, unless I have an accident or unplanned illness that gets out of hand (or my nearly perfect husband finally snaps and offs me when I try (and fail) to make good coffee, again).  But I am someone that misses them when they’re gone, quietly but deeply.  Our animals weasel their ways into our hearts and minds and physical space.  It only makes sense to me that there is an emptiness – sometimes profound – when they go. I can focus on the richness and the comedy they bring to my life, but I am not so selfless that I don’t wish they didn’t have to go. I always want a little more time, even as I know their passage is an important part of our lives. The day before Thanksgiving in 2010, I lost my sidekick of 10 years, a second-hand German Shepherd Dog named Ripley. She had been my constant companion and had helped me raise my three kids. She was whip-smart, slightly neurotic, and I missed her. Shortly after her death (probably, like, 6 hours) I vowed no more shepherds.  I still don’t know why I thought that. Grief involves strange proclamations for me, maybe. Luckily it also involves a lot of dark and inappropriate humor, and I am not someone who is too stubborn to change her mind.

Five months later, I found myself being tasted and climbed on and bumped into by three beautiful German Shepherd puppies that had been identified as being good matches for me. I had never worked with a breeder before, and had extensively researched and found a one that I felt comfortable with. I was looking for – yep – a female. After a while of snuggling and observing the pups, and having a non-hurried conversation with the breeder, I mentioned how pretty some of the long coated dogs she had on her site were. She hesitated. At this point I had been there for about an hour, and we had already exchanged e-mails and my application and had several phone conversations in the prior weeks, so she had a good read on me. She said she had a long coat. He was a male. He had been returned. The former owner said she thought he might be aggressive because he had growled. But the breeder hadn’t seen any evidence of aggression since he’d been back and thought, perhaps, the owner was overly nervous about having a German Shepherd. She brought him out.

He was older than the little ones scurrying around. She’d had him back for about a month, and this nearly six month old puppy hung back (and I purposefully didn’t seek him out). There was another puppy. A female. She was making all the right moves. Being cute, not too boisterous or bossy with her siblings. She was really pulling out all the “pick me” stops.  And though my heart went out to the returned puppy, who was hanging back and taking it all in, I remember sitting on the floor with the cute female in my lap and looked up at the breeder. I remember taking in the breath to say “this one” when I felt something at my back.  The little long coat had stealthily made his way around the room, and was pawing me. And the breeder, who raised her dogs in her house (so was familiar with them all), said that it was interesting, because other than her, he hadn’t purposefully approached anyone since his return. Her feeling was that he was quiet and chill, because he had been this way since birth and since he had been back with her. I met his parents (spectacular and friendly (I would have stolen his father if I could have gotten away with it)), his grandparents, and his cousins (ditto on the wow factor). She did not think little Mr. Long Coat would be a super social dog, greeting people happily with sloppy kisses, but could be a great dog for someone who wanted to work with him. She was careful to say that she herself was a very confident owner (made sense), and she thought he needed that, as he hadn’t displayed anything remotely aggressive with her and her multiple generations of dogs in the house. He looked up at me and pawed my back again, and that was that.

My discounted, bargain puppy was ‘Valentino’, and he became ‘T’. He was connected to me, devoted to me. He was my dog. When I left the house, he waited for me, no matter who else was home with him. When I came home, he was wiggle boy and we would go play, or read, or write. He was happy where I was. He didn’t need much more. He was also the smartest dog I’d ever had. One day he brought me a ball and dropped it on the floor. I casually said, “I can’t reach it” and he immediately picked it up and put it on my lap. He knew “I can’t reach it” every time after that. He knew the names of his toys without being taught (“Go get your sea star”, “Bring me your disc”). He was obsessed with these rubber discs (frisbee type things) and I would buy them on-line. They came in yellow and purple and blue. He preferred purple and would choose the purple ones, even when he had a choice from a dozen yellow and purple and blue ones – brand new – from the Amazon.com box. He learned tricks easily and was eager to do any type of training and be rewarded with food or just the toss of a toy. He was a playful and goofy and beautiful boy.

And he was dangerous.

I won’t go into all the incidents here, how things evolved, and every step of the year and a half that I had him and loved him and agonized over him. No matter what we did, in the world of dog training NewSpeak, he was “reactive”. Any change in his environment would elicit a reaction. Maybe a growl, or crazy freak-out barking, or maybe a charge at my Dad-In-Law (whom T knew and loved, as he lives with us) who came down the hall and into the kitchen from his apartment, for the gajillionth time. His first reaction if something changed was always as if there was major danger and he had to make sure we knew of it, or that he was safe. Who knows. I felt – and I am not saying this is accurate or real (no one can say they know) – that the world was a very scary place for T and that he had attached himself to me for safety. I think he was comfortable (as comfortable as he got) at the breeder’s because he was a baby, and the other dogs were there, and he could hang back behind them when anyone came in. It was a very controlled environment for him, even though the puppies and dogs were heavily socialized as many different people came and went. Neither the breeder nor I believe he was abused in any way at his first home. But even though he looked to me for safety (again, I’m guessing here), it wasn’t enough for him to feel truly safe. He wasn’t dominant, didn’t guard his food from others (dogs or humans), and wasn’t the lead dog in the house. He didn’t grumble at us if we moved him and didn’t delay or bargain in any way if we wanted him off of his chair or his bed. He didn’t fit any trainer’s mold.  And trainers told us that.

We tried all-positive trainers (who were first scared of him (and warned us he may be “genetically damaged”, and therefore a lost cause), but then found themselves playing with him after a visit or two and giving us hope and encouragement, and then later were warning us that he was indeed not making progress, and would need to spend his whole life in a crate). We tried “balanced training” which made sense to me, because you encouraged and praised good behavior but it wasn’t taboo to say “no” or “hey” as a warning (and this resonated with me because, having three kids, I couldn’t imagine what they’d turn out to be if my kids were my equals and I only ever “redirected” with gooey meat and praised them. One, they’d wonder why I was offering them gooey meat rather than Sour Patch Kids, and two they’d never have the terrifying experience of ‘mom eyes’ and my eerie calm when they had clearly crossed the line). I’m comfortable tap dancing around all four of Skinner’s quadrants of operant conditioning. Yep, though I stay pretty darned positive, and am happy to look ludicrous as I praise, I’m a balanced gal at heart (ever try to slide tackle a dog chasing your cat? Count me in and call me kooky.)

We put the time into training. A lot of time. Repetition, conditioning, socialization, obedience, private lessons, group lessons. We conditioned like his life depended on it, because it did. We completely changed our lives (and being the hive of family activity for us and our extended family, which involved octogenarians down to infants and normally thirty plus people for events, this was no small shift). We were never gone overnight (T couldn’t be boarded or ‘dog sat’) and never left for more than a few hours at a time. People we loved could no longer just walk into the house. Baby gates were everywhere, as were crates. And we learned that there is no such thing as 100 percent management without our own island, and probably even then.

It wasn’t that he was a crazy, explosive mess all the time – not at all. He was a great dog,   most of the time. But T was unpredictable. He scared people, and then he hurt people. And there are many people who say that a dog should never be put to sleep for behavioral problems, but those people do not volunteer to come and take your dog – who has bitten and is scary – and give him a wonderful home. And people say that those of us who cannot keep our dangerous dogs (shame on us) should just mosey on over to a beautiful no-kill ranch where our dogs will live forever in the company of other dogs and have a wonderful life. And how many ranches like that exist? Not many. And how many dogs could use something like that? Too many. And what type of life would a dog like T – who loved being with me (and my family) and loved to play with the few others that he allowed into his life (especially his adored female shepherd, Blaze) be in on a ranch with a bunch of other dogs (he was frightened of other dogs, and he was unbalanced, which drew their aggression, thus fueling an awful cycle). More than one ‘expert’ suggested he would be fine crated for most of every day, with two half hour exercise sessions. For his entire life. My eyes are welling up as I type. If you knew him, you would know that was ridiculous. He loved being with his people and his Blaze.

Our wonderful vet has a reactive dog. She understood us, and she loved T (and he was great as her patient (not so much in the waiting room)). She worked with us from the moment we got him. She was a part of far too much money spent (at my request) to find a medical cause for any anxiety or fear he was having. If T had a training set back, I called both her and his breeder (who had become a friend). My vet and I agreed that he was not a candidate for the anti depressants or anti anxiety medications for dogs (I don’t know how I feel about those anyway, but that’s me personally), and I wasn’t willing to drug him into a stupor with sedatives. T’s last trainer was (is) fantastic, and has helped many, many aggressive dogs with bad histories. Between our vet, our trainer, and T’s breeder, I was not alone in my work with T. And he was not alone either.

His breeder would have taken him back, but he wouldn’t fit into the house any more, being an older male. It would have been irresponsible (let alone a huge legal liability for her, which she didn’t mention but I knew) to ever re-home him. He would have lived his life in a kennel. And she knew, as did I, that it would be no life for him. Not this dog. He was far too attached to the people he loved, and he was a social guy in his own way. I had gotten to know her pretty well over the time I had T. I watched her work like crazy to ensure her dogs had great homes. She had the policy of taking every single returned dog back no matter how long someone had owned him or her. I listened to her frustration and anger if a great dog was returned after many years because a baby was on the way or he was just too big now (rare, due to her screening process but it happened). She had strong opinions, and I didn’t want to let her down because she had trusted me with T. I was legally bound to return him to her if I couldn’t keep him. But she let me make the call, and supported me when I did. And she remains my friend to this day. In the end, even with all of the support and assurances that I’d done all I could, I was alone.

I was alone in my decision. I was alone when we went to see our vet. I was alone as I held him and he slipped away, looking to me as if he had a question. It didn’t matter how many people were actually there at any of those moments, or who told me I did the right thing, and that something awful was going to happen if I didn’t let him go (make him go). I was alone.

I loved that dog more than I had ever loved a dog. I was spiritually tethered to him. If you knew me you would know that is a very weird thing for me to say. But it’s the best description of how I felt. It had never happened before. Maybe it will never happen again. I am so grateful for his having been here, with me. I never once wished I had chosen the other puppy. This was the experience the term “gut wrenching” was created for.

As I was driving back from the vet, tears streaming down my face and that overplayed Phil Phillips song on the radio, it began pouring rain. Just pouring. And it was that weird sun shower type rain where it’s really bright outside but rain is beating on your windshield. And it was surprising in its veracity and lasted about 30 seconds, and then the rainbow appeared. And I exclaimed (no, I pretty much screamed), “Oh my God….”

Now right about here, you are thinking I’m going to talk about the rainbow bridge, and you are right, but not in the way you expect. If you want to believe I sighed and said “God speed, T., head over the bridge. I’ll see you one day.” then stop reading right now. Seriously. You are about to be profoundly disappointed.

I’m pausing to let you decide what you want to do.

Okay, pause over.

I screamed, “Oh my God, you have got to be FREAKIN’ KIDDING ME!”

I was not a believer in signs or rainbow bridges and this was just nuts and it really ticked me off. And then I thought it was funny that I just cursed at God for making a rainbow. Then it was even funnier because it had just rained and He could hurl a lightening bolt at me whenever He felt like it. And then I realized that I had gotten God and Zeus mixed up and that was really funny to me. And it was good because it snapped me out of my grief-induced haze (outrage at a deity for messing with you does that), and I actually started smiling and even chuckling as the tears dried on my cheeks. I knew this was going to be a process. There was just no way around it, just through it. I knew I would question myself for a really long time, even though I truly believed I’d made the only choice that was right for T. I believed it then and still do. But I was okay knowing and living with the fact that I would have to wrestle with myself about it. I knew I’d miss him and that seeing his toys – especially his discs and jolly balls – and sitting with Blaze would knock me back for a while. Eventually I’d be okay, but it would take time. I know myself that way. And I didn’t believe in signs.

Didn’t believe in signs.

Get that? That was past tense.

Turns out the rainbow on that drive home was the first of many strange occurrences and coincidences in the days that followed. Marshal Dillon Dingle was another.

Part II to follow.

Thanks for readin’.